The limits of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion flags in Bristol July 2019

Why was I absent from Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests last week? I’m a left leaning voter who accepts time is running out for climate change action. Last winter I spent eight days upgrading my loft insulation to reduce my gas consumption by about 10% – which is one of many actions I’ve taken to reduce my carbon output. So why did I cycle past the protest each day instead of joining in?

Although XR are doing an important job of keeping climate change in the news cycle, I believe there’s a limit to what these street protests will achieve.

Firstly while the group’s name reflects the uncomfortable truth – unchecked climate change really could bring about the extinction of our species – sounding that alarm is unlikely to influence many climate change skeptics. Humans prefer to be re-assured than alarmed and we like putting things off until the last minute. I don’t say this to make pithy observations about human nature, I say it because these tendencies are a serious issue where climate change is concerned. The fossil fuel industry have vast resources and lobbying power which consistently deliver the message that we can just carry on as we are. Their message is a perfect fit for those basic flaws in human nature.

Secondly for anyone who seeks to turn the tide, are they aware of how they are perceived by those still going with the tide? Even non-skeptics can be annoyed by the disruption. On Weds 17th July 2019 the Bristol group went outside the official planned protest and blocked the M32 motorway, causing a son to miss his father’s dying moments. Sadly this very personal tragedy will be what some remember of XRs protest. And I’ll bet some will view the protest as a bit self-indulgent, especially when their daily life is forced to detour around a yoga session on a blocked road.

And that brings up the third reason I wasn’t at XR protests. The tent covered Castle Park had a festival feel this week. And with the drumming and chanting it just wasn’t really me. Without meaning to offend any protesters, I would say it all looks a bit “knit your own yoghurt” (to quote Alexi Sayle). This is the cultural baggage that comes with XR’s street protests. No matter how inclusive they aim to be, they are mostly appealling to specific groups of people. With the rise of populism, and the ideological silos of social media, cultural identity dominates politics now, frequently forcing rational policy discussion into second place. The UK media are reinforcing this too, and the right wing newspapers contain plenty of climate change skepticism, even denial. The total circulation of The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and Daily Express is around 3.6 million. The left leaning Guardian and Mirror, only 0.6 million. Were there any Daily Mail readers at XR’s protests? Precious few I would guess. And how many more viewed XR’s protest as the unwelcome actions of people they have little in common with, which means their message can be safely ignored?

The Extinction Rebellion banners say ‘System change not climate change’ which sounds radical. But XR have no specific policy solutions to achieve the seemingly impossible task of removing fossil fuels from the world economy. They are right that humanity must stop measuring success purely in GDP terms, which is at record levels while poverty continues and we torch the planet’s dwindling resources. But this obvious insanity has not led to a surge in support for the left. Frustration with an economic system that primarily serves the already wealthy has led to Brexit and right-wing populists like Trump.

Don’t get me wrong. Extinction Rebellion should continue to protest and keep climate change in the headlines. But to get lasting and meaningful change, policies with cross-party appeal are essential, and I believe the only cross-party policy that has a chance of implementation is some form of carbon dividend. The dividend calls for widespread carbon taxation, but unlike other taxes all the income is divided equally among the citizenry, instead of going into government coffers (I discuss the pros and cons in this post. The dividend appears both in the UK Green Party policy statement and is the key aim of heavily Republican/Libertarian US group The Climate Leadership Council. Our politicians are thinking in 5 year election cycles and we are running out of time to win over enough climate skeptics. Surely the Green Party should be heavily promoting the carbon dividend because ideologically it works for the small government right as much as it fits the left’s primary purpose of making society more equitable?

The environmental left must also harness the consumer desire for the latest technology. Tesla have single-handedly changed the perception of zero emission electric cars, which sell as much for their high comfort level, in-car technology and low running costs as they do for their contribution to air quality and low carbon. Electric cars and aircraft and electric planes are quieter, more comfortable, versatile and more efficient. With cost, range and charging speed improving, electric transport is better all round.

I’m not saying electric cars will save the planet – all cars consume resources. But there is no sign people are tiring of consumerism or switching to public transport quickly enough to significantly reduce energy demand. Those resources must become low carbon as soon as possible, and promoting quality of life improvements in a post fossil fuel world is the carrot that is needed to persuade skeptics that ending the oil age is a positive thing. And that is needed every bit as much as environmentalists, scientists and grass roots groups like XR continuing to ring the climate alarm bell.

When is a tax not a tax? When it’s a carbon dividend

Oil extraction

Expect to hear more about carbon dividends in the next few years. The latest IPCC report and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events this year in particular, is perhaps finally focusing minds across party lines on ways to make carbon taxes politically acceptable.

Scientists and economists have long advocated carbon taxes as the most effective way to remove carbon from the world economy. While left of centre Europeans like me want increased funding for public services, history shows it’s an uphill task selling the tax increases needed to pay for them, even when voters say they want better schools, hospitals or more police on the street. Taxing carbon may be vital but people rarely vote for new taxes. With climate change the real cost is in the future, and it’s too easy for voters and politicians to think short term and let future generations pay, with the cost of inaction rising all the time.

In different forms, the carbon dividend has long been popular with environmentalists, and the dividend is now gaining traction with Republicans and Libertarians. This appeal across the ideological spectrum means a dividend may be the only way to get carbon taxes implemented – and perhaps more importantly, keep them in place through successive changes of government. Continue reading…

Climate change, anxieties and actions

Oil refining
Image courtesy of NASA

This summer’s heatwave through Europe and Asia was one of many extraordinary weather events, which along with forest fires, storms and flash floods, are becoming less extraordinary every year. Scientists are not claiming direct cause and effect for individual weather events, rather there is a very simple principle at work – CO2 and Methane put more energy into our weather systems. The more energy goes in, the more energy comes out, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The IPCC October 2018 report and the ‘hothouse earth’ report that rounded off the summer both re-state that climate change may become irreversible, but with the worrying twist that the tipping point may be closer than previously thought. There are more frequent warnings that we really could leave Earth permanently damaged for our species, perhaps within a few generations.

Such headlines grab the attention for a time because our hunter-gatherer brains are hardwired to monitor for immediate threats. However as the solution requires action outside of our control, what remains is often a sense of powerlessness.

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the nuclear arms race lived with a similar sense of anxiety and powerlessness. Every childhood from the 1950s to the 1980s came with the realisation that the complete destruction of everything you love is an ever present man-made threat. The adult world is dominated by a love of abstract concepts – political ideology then, short term profit now – which become more important than life on this planet.

Yet, despite our species many flaws, we have to focus on the positives and believe our species has a strong enough instinct for self preservation to avoid complete catastrophe.
Continue reading…